Million Dollar Maybe

Christina Swanson could be a champ again. Too bad few have the guts to face her.

Through gym friends, she was introduced to Luis Lagerman, a retired fighter with a tough-love coaching approach. He generally trains men, but he and partner Matt Baiamonte decided to take a chance on Swanson. "I see money in her," Lagerman says simply. "I work with talent. She's determined, and she's ready to go pro. She's cute too — that sells."

The media soon began to notice the fierce blonde with the Wonder Woman biceps. The Sun-Sentinel gushed that she "took control" and "looked sharp" during the 2007 Golden Gloves semifinals. She walked away with the national title that year.

But even when you're number one, amateur boxing doesn't pay the bills. So Swanson took a part-time job lifeguarding for City of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue, where she mans the colorful guard towers and once saved a French family from a rip current.

Christina Swanson is a good suburban girl. Just don't cross her.
C. Stiles
Christina Swanson is a good suburban girl. Just don't cross her.
Swanson has a part-time gig lifeguarding for City of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue.
C. Stiles
Swanson has a part-time gig lifeguarding for City of Miami Beach Ocean Rescue.

Though she likes the job, the shifts are erratic and she's never guaranteed more than a couple of days a week. Money can get tight. So she began taking classes at Broward Fire Academy and is training to become a paramedic. Still, something is missing. "I'm implosive, and boxing gives me release," she says.

Lately, she's been cursed by opponents' mysterious injuries, sudden sicknesses, and last-minute cancellations. On the occasions she can find partners, they often don't match her skill level or weight class. Because a pro career is forged from a solid amateur record, the no-shows have left her out of practice. "It's hard," she says. "Some girls travel all the way to Jacksonville and can't get a fight."

This past March, trainers scheduled her first pro match. She was set to fight Atlanta-based slugger Jackie Breitenstein at Mahi Temple, a 1,000-seat auditorium on the Miami River. Networks such as ESPN often shoot fights at the venue, and wealthy fans arrive in 80-foot yachts. It could have been a turning point in her career — a chance to carve a reputation out of her opponent's puffy face. But Breitenstein was a no-show. She didn't want to make the long car trip, Swanson suspects. "It was frustrating."

On a recent weekday at her cozy but bare Hollywood apartment, Swanson picks up a poster that lies curled on the couch. It reads, "Latin Fury: June 2009," and pictures mostly Hispanic pro male fighters. In the center is a photo of her, wearing a blue bathing suit and pumping her fists in the air. Her long hair blows, courtesy of an off-camera fan. She looks more like a Maxim model than a woman who crunches bones.

She tosses the poster back on the couch and shrugs. "Hey, if it gets you coverage, you can't knock it."

But she didn't get to fight that night either. No other girls showed up.

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Girl fights were more of a freak show than a sport when they began in the 1720s. The first recorded match was staged across the street from Oxford Circus in London. Lady brawlers were encouraged to scratch, maul, and kick, according to the Women Boxing Archive Network. Most were poor and Cockney.

Women's boxing didn't hit the United States until 150 years later, when a scrappy brunette named Nell Saunders pummeled beginner Rose Harland at a small theater in New York City. Her chauvinistic prize: a silver butter dish. In early photos, boxers like Saunders were shown wearing dainty ankle-length dresses and swatting tiny punching bags.

In 1954, the first nationally televised fight in the United States featured a 98-pound, 4-foot-11-inch former carnival worker named Barbara Buttrick. (Now 77 years old, Buttrick lives in Miami and runs the Women's International Boxing Federation.)

Women weren't granted boxing licenses until 20 years later. With media attention, the sport grew more popular. Even so, Bonnie "the Cobra" Canino — the Dania-based former world champ — remembers promoters calling to solicit her for mud-wrestling matches in the late '70s. "I hung up the phone," she says.

A lawsuit followed in 1982. Lansing Community College student Jill Lafler sued the Golden Gloves of America for not allowing women to fight in the tournament. Michigan U.S. District Judge Wendell Miles tossed out the case, but the message was sent: Girls want to fight too. Explains Ryan Wissow, the ponytailed president of Women's International Boxing Association: "It was just a novelty back then."

That changed in the early '90s, when Christy "the Coal Miner's Daughter" Martin emerged from Orlando. Don King — the flashy promoter who plugged Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield — signed her to a four-year contract. It was the first time a famed promoter had bothered with a girl. Martin fought on Tyson's card in front of an audience of more than a million in March 1996 and walked away with an unheard-of $15,000. A few months later, People magazine called her "a new sensation in professional boxing." In Miami Beach, big names like Laila Ali followed.

"Florida was a hotbed for women's boxing," Wissow says. "The fan base really picked up." Partly, it was because great boxers from the Muhammad Ali era stuck around Miami to become trainers. On top of that, two of four women's boxing sanctioning bodies were — and still are — run out of the Sunshine State.

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